THE BIG CHOP
So my hair. Everyone wants to roll with the mantra of “Hair doesn't make the woman.” “You are beautiful with it or without it.” Blah blah blah. Well me? Myself? I ain’t never been India Arie.
Fuck that. I was my hair. Picture it...Oakland. 1990. I started off a tender headed little girl who would turn bright red with eyes filled with tears each time my mother took that little blue jar of grease each Sunday to grease my scalp. I remember the day my mother decided she just could no longer wash and blow dry my hair. Her texture of hair was the complete opposite of mine so to say she didn't know what she was doing was an understatement.
I remember my first day in the hair salon. I was about 6 or 7 years old. I had hair down my back in two tightly braided braids that were secured with colorful bobbles at the top and bottom of each braid. Edges perfectly laid around my round face. My childhood best friend, Tiffany, was there with to greet me at her grandmother’s hair salon. She stood at the door rolling her eyes at my dramatics. I was bright red because I’d already started crying on the car ride over. And in the words of many black mothers, “Stop all that crying before I give you something to cry about”, did nothing but give me more anxiety. You see, this was before there were all the magical detangling potions that there are today. I was that tender headed little girl that the misery on my face each time someone combed my hair left people stunned that someone with so much hair could be SO tender headed. I would soon come to learn that this was what almost every little black girl and black woman had on her agenda on a Friday or Saturday. It was a black woman’s ritual and there was no running from what every other black girl was also going through, hair care.
I survived that first hair appointment, crying off and on and trying to be brave in front of my best friend who sat there doing a mix of laughing and trying to soothe me. Tiff’s grandma, who had now become my grandma since Tiffany and I spent almost every weekend together at a sleepover starting on Friday night, followed by Jazzercise early Saturday morning. Grandma held in her laugh and started with a hair wash and conditioner, then to comb out my hair before putting me under the dryer. Oooooouuuuch!
I spent what felt like hours under that dryer. Flipping through every hair book and Jet magazine that Tiffany would bring me. I watched the hustlers come in and out selling everything from handbags to make up to church hats. All the black women looking over each item carefully, negotiating the price and listing off items they should go find and bring back for the next visit.
Grandma came over ever so often between other customers to check on my hair. “Nope, not dry yet. You’ve got a lot of hair baby girl”, she’d say while turning up the heat on the helmet that made me feel like I should be in outer space. Ughhhhh. Hot!!! This is miserable. My hair was fine. Why do I have to do this? How often do I have to do this? What seemed like hours later, grandma came over to lift the space helmet up and bring me over to her chair. Whew. Freedom from what felt like a blowtorch blowing onto my scalp. Grandma parted my hair in sections and blew dry anything that was still damp. Ouch! The comb from the blow dryer digs into my scalp. The customers in the waiting area sit around amazed about the amount of hair on my head. Filled with delight, admiration and doling out compliments. I felt like a princess sitting there. Oh, I'm a big deal? Oh.
Next up is a hot press. Grandma greases my scalp with more of that blue stuff my mom has at home and grabs the hot comb. Sssssszzzzzzz! That is the slight sizzle of the hot comb hitting the grease on my roots. I wince briefly at the heat. This would be the norm for a very long time. Beauty is pain and I would come to see every black woman throughout my life make this same wince. Eventually, you just take it like a G, because by the end of this you would step out of this hair salon looking and feeling like a million bucks.
For the rest of my childhood and most of my adult life, I would come to know the joy of walking out of the salon with beautiful, shiny, HEALTHY tresses blowing in the wind that makes you not only feel beautiful but also, POWERFUL.
Before long grandma decided that her arthritis was no match for all of the hair that I had and she referred me to another “stylist” across the salon. By the time I reached my teenage years, I’d had enough of that press and curl and it was time to switch it up.
I found a stylist in a co-ed salon that filled me with teenage, hormone filled joy until I left for college. By this time I’d fried, dyed and laid every hair to the side. And I mean tried every perm that wouldn't snatch my hair by the follicles and run. I'd brought every shade of red and copper colored hair dye I could find in Walgreens. I was now walking through Oakland with every shade of Keyshia Cole sunshine and Rihanna fire red before they even knew what a rinse was. I bought the latest Golden Hot Curling Iron’s and (finally) Flat Iron’s to maintain my hair between hair appointments. Oh yes, this was now a way of life.
I’d even gone as far as doing a big chop. Yes, a BIG chop, the day before my 18th birthday. I walked into my 18th birthday party with my hair in a bob. Still with the same amount of swag as I’d had when my hair was falling down my back. Everyone with their mouth on the floor and amazed at the balls that I’d had to part ways with something so many women had lusted after or tried to maintain for so long.
I went off to college, 3,000 miles away trying to find a hair stylist in my new hometown but to no avail the first few years. So, I did what every other girl around me was doing in college, I “learned” how to do my own hair. I was dying my hair with boxes of hair color from the neighborhood CVS and I’d upgraded to the newest flatirons whose temperature got even hotter in my attempt to lay this mane. I stood in the mirror frying my hair alongside my college besties before a night out on the town. We were literally singeing off parts of our hair in an attempt to reach perfection.
At some point, I came to my senses and decided to stop frying and dying my tresses. I also decided it was time for long hair again. I went back to my natural hair color and tried to get back to my natural state of hair. Whew. My hair was thanking me. Praise hands and all. I’m sorry boo. I didn’t know. I will never dye you Rihanna red again!
At 33 I was loving me. Loving my hair and embarking on my natural hair journey, and then Bam! Breast Cancer. Naturally, I was devastated and desperate to find a way to keep something that was such a huge part of me.
Everyone offered words of encouragement in person and in my DM’s but that, “You are not your hair” mantra fell on deaf ears. Who would I be now? What would I look like? My hair is one of the things that has always made me feel so beautiful? What will I do without it?
I kept my fingers crossed that I would be one in a million to not lose my hair from chemo and before I could get to round 2, the one thing that had never betrayed me pushed me out onto the ledge and told me to fly.
I felt the tingling sensation on my scalp one weekend right before my 2nd round of chemo. One of my Breasties had already warned me. Welp, It’s here. I sat across from MJ at breakfast at our local diner and strands started falling out of my bob pt 2. Oh, you didn’t think I was going to let Cancer grab me by my luxurious mane like I was some bitch in a dark alley, did you? Fuck that. Did you forget I grew up in Oakland? You stay ready so you don’t have to get ready. Okurrrr.
It’s not coming out in clumps but I’ll be damned if you’re going to put me through any additional mental duress. MJ and I agree on Sunday night that he will shave my head as soon as he gets home Monday night. Gulp. I went to bed in tears that night.
I wake up on Monday with my usual Monday blues. I don’t want to go to work, I don’t want to deal with breast cancer and I don’t want to deal with how to trap my hair from fleeing. I get out of bed, angry, tired and a very sad. Hair continues to fall. I get dressed for work, put on my makeup and make my way to the door.
There’s that tingling again. My scalp feels sore. I rub my fingers through my head and there are more strands on my dress and on my hands. I turn around, walk back up the stairs and I grab MJ’s clippers. It makes a buzzing sound as I turn it on. It pulsates in my hand and I grab my hair chunk by chunk and shave every single follicle I’d worked so hard to preserve for 33 years.
I’m free. Like a bird. Like an eagle. Bald. Bald. Bald.